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UX Heuristics, Cognitive Crutches &  A Process for Simplifying Application UI

UX Heuristics, Cognitive Crutches & A Process for Simplifying Application UI

Author by Damon Sanchez

The world around us can be overwhelming most of the time, especially during a global pandemic and with social turbulence occurring on a daily basis.

When we think about how our minds comprehend the vast amounts of information around us, one of the cognitive tools our minds use is pattern recognition.  We hear a lot about pattern recognition in Artificial Intelligence because programmers are attempting to mimic human mental cognition.

This so-called pattern recognition, from a User Experience and Psychological perspective, is called Heuristics.  A heuristic can be seen at play in almost all walks of human life.


Let’s say for instance, one makes a cup of coffee, and upon taking a sip of it, they realize that the coffee is too strong. There is an adopted pattern or heuristic that takes shape here: one looks for crème, milk or sugar.  We call this a behavioral heuristic.

Another simple example of a behavioral hueristic is walking into a room and the room is dark.  There is an adopted pattern or heuristic for this too: one looks for a light switch.


Sometimes if I walk into a foreign dark room, I'll reach for a light switch assuming it should be next to the door, and will grab for a switch even if it's not there...

Understanding how our minds look for patterns, it becomes apparent that there are other types of heuristics. For instance, during the day let's say you meet a new neighbor and visually you notice they are very clean cut, polite, reserved, quiet, and they have a lot of books in their house.  With this, you may start to make assumptions about what this person does for a living.  We call this type of pattern recognition a social heuristic.

These examples lay out various ways our minds take large amounts of information and off-load the cognitive processing involved so we can focus on other aspects of life.

The same way that we off-load the cognitive processing of behavioral and social heuristics, in everyday life User Experiences can harness this same concept of pattern recognition inside User Interfaces through concepts like affordance and Interaction Heuristics.

Research shows us that what makes a good User Experience is relative to the perception of the user, and that perception in User Experiences is comprised of a constellation of different variables.  One of the most important aspects to the psychology of a positive experience is how much cognitive processing is going on inside the perceived application.  In other words, the easier the application is to use, the better the perception of the application is.

In this context, there is psychology at work here that one can argue states the more “affordance and interaction heuristics that can be used and built upon” the better the perception of an application will be.

An affordance is fairly easy to spot in User Experiences, and we have talked about them in previous blog posts on iconography.  Think for a moment on the visual stimulus that occurs when seeing a hamburger icon, or an envelope icon.  In this context we can say that these icons carry affordance of use.  A user can assume upon clicking on one of these icons that something will occur by making a prediction before the click. If you predicted  a menu and a mail experience, then you have an affordance or bias to these icons…


If I see an icon that I've used in the past or that corresponds to an intuitive interaction I know what experience to expect... That makes sense.


To capture and harness new interaction heuristics, things become a little less obvious, but using a Human Centered Process (HCP), we can uncover and document what drives users to depend on interaction heuristics.


To touch on HCP momentarily, during the first stage of HCP there is great effort to understand a constellation of attributes, behaviors and empathetical aspects particular to a User’s Journey.  Whether the content is being discovered or it’s being evaluated or validated, this crucial stage helps to inform what is needed for successful user adoption.

In this context, during the Understand phase the current state and the future state aspects of a project are collaboratively looked over and discussed in a workshop setting.

Imagine a hypothetical situation in which we hear from users about current search functionality in an application.

Now, let’s say we find out that in the current application a common User Interface Patterns is used like the one below. 


We see a search box where the results occur below. This is a fairly common User Interface Pattern observed time-and-time again by Google…

Now let’s go one step further. How are more results uncovered in the UI Pattern above?

Would you scroll down?

Would you scroll to the right? 

The answer to this question is an Interaction Heuristic and it is relative to the Persona or Group of users.

When looking at interactions, according to (Pribeanu, C., & Vanderdonckt, J., 2002) there is an inherent task structure to them, on one hand they are functional where upon we don’t really need an interface “I need something”, and on the other hand we have operational “I have to do something, that triggers something to happen”.


In the context of UI, “the need” in some cases causes an interaction to take shape which is dependent on an interface to operationally make something happen like dominoes.

Just like the behavioral heuristic we talked about in the beginning of this article, where the act of finding coffee that is too strong someone reaches for cream and sugar and that this behavior or action is automatic.

In the example UI below, upon need or want to reveal more search results a user is trained in an interaction that becomes automatic.



Interaction Heuristics are incredibly important when designing new applications, or migrating old applications to new applications, or adding features to a current application.

Here are some examples of Heuristic markup from real projects captured during Usability Reviews from the User Experience Team at Concurrency.





The byproduct of walking through heuristics like the kind shown above are to shed light on what typical interaction heuristics would be in an interface while comparing those with the current User Experience. 

Engaging heuristic markups during a workshop or interview allows for pain points, and empathetical understanding to be captured which ultimately helps to inform design decisions that impact adoption.

If you would like to learn more about how a Human Centered Process and Interaction Heuristics can help your company or project, check out more of Concurrency’s UX Blog Posts, visit us online, or follow us on social media.




Pribeanu, C., & Vanderdonckt, J. (2002). Exploring Design Heuristics for User Interface Derivation from Task and Domain Models. Computer-Aided Design of User Interfaces III, 103–110.